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Dilemma on the Subject of the Ancient Prodigal Vulture – Romel Rahman

Jul 16, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

Transated from the Bengali by Chirayata Chakrabarty

The oldest man, or the one we call the Old Man, sometimes looks to the sky and falls into spells of delusions, for he sees that golden vulture on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the village, and believes he’s seeing things; so, he rubs his eyes and lowers them to rest them, then closes them for a little doze. At this point his ancient left eye quivers and he opens them again in some unknown suspicion, and then he swoons because he has seen, clear as day, that vulture, that vulture who was to come! So, he shuts his eyes once more, lowers his face and stoops; for it’s important not to leak such information, one has to make a lot of deliberations before one spreads the word, you see?  But in that moment, within his brain, the slivers of memory dart about too quickly; and little tornadoes rise at his feet, and there is a conference of rustling, whispering autumn leaves, but he pays no attention to them. And he tries to recall his age, and he perplexes himself with his calculations! For the village folks say that he is ninety nine and they have been saying this for years, and so he does not grow older nor younger, forever caught at ninety nine! But today he remembers what his dadi had said to him, that when he turns ninety nine, he will see a bird. Therefore, this too perplexes him, Old Fazil has left him within the walls of a puzzle, for she never specified what bird. A vulture was a bird too, and whether he was ninety nine or eighty, he would surely come across some bird or another, and so he grows bitter thinking about his long dead, decomposing grandmother. Nevertheless, this assures him that he has, in fact, in that moment, just reached the age of ninety nine. But the real problem is caused by his mother who had prophesied as she kissed his forehead, “When that strange bird comes to this village… you will die… that bird is not a bird… it’s your end guised as a bird…” So, he grows woeful at his mother’s premonition. What mother foretells her own son’s death? This leaves him uncomfortable, in his inherited conundrum. Plus, it’s hard to tell what she meant by ‘strange bird’. If she had said, “the village will become a wasteland for animal guts, the bird will come to feed on the dead…” then he could have deduced that what she meant was a vulture. He felt, even at his age, rather cross with his departed mother, although she hadn’t said anything about his age, but the fact that the bird would appear as a sign of his approaching death, and he could have easily gotten concerned with his impending doom, but instead he begins to think of his nani. She had told him the tale of an abominable bird that would bring a plague to the village, and it would sit clumsily on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the village, and it is a bird that is  ever-hungry, so this bird would lay an egg and this egg would hold death within it; for from that egg would hatch another abominable bird which would lay more eggs, and those eggs would birth more, more, more abominable birds, and those abominable birds would lay more, more, more eggs… thus, the villagers would have to die to become food for these abominable birds! So, he looks once more to the sky, and finds the bird, sitting still. So, he considers, in keeping with his nani’s words, he is not dying alone – when he dies, he will take the whole village with him – this is easing news! But the snag lay in the question – where will it lay its egg? Will it lay the egg perched as it is on a branch, and will the egg fall like ripe mangoes and apples splat to the ground, dispensing two baby birds? Since the primary or origin egg will be singular, it can be assumed that from it will hatch two twin birds, or else we will have to wait for another egg to be laid, and by the time it happens, the first baby bird may get lost wandering about in its melancholy solitude! And so the first bird has to lay another third egg to hatch a companion for the bird that came out of the second egg, and we will have to wait for that to happen, so it has to be presumed that the first egg will hatch into twin baby birds and from their eggs to more birds to more eggs, the village will be overgrown with these abominable birds! So, he begins to sense the complication and gets quite peeved once again at his grandmother for she had said, “…the bird would be hungry”. What bird isn’t hungry? If it’s true that the village will be wrecked and everyone will die, that would mean that the bird survives on human flesh. So that must be a vulture. This puts him at ease and he watches the bird preen its feathers with its beak, and he realises something that his grandmother never mentioned – why, when and where from will the bird come? This upsets him, for which vulture’s spawn is this vulture; which vulture’s egg did this vulture come from? Then he grows vexed by his own juvenile questions. He also begins to consider the possibility that this bird might be immortal, existing since the beginning of time! Perhaps this vulture or its predecessors had been among them, when all the animals were paired off and taken aboard during Nuh’s flood… or maybe this one is their descendant? He then suddenly remembers his wife and wants to ask her this stuff! But his wife who was at least ten years younger than him and who was extremely beautiful, but prickly, as a young woman, and now has crinkly skin but is prickly still, so he could take his wife’s position for they had lived together for a long time and he knew at length her silo of words and phrases, and the webs of her thought; so he knows that when he asks his grumpy, ill-tempered wife, “what do you know about the strange bird, dear?”, she would, without a doubt, reply with, “in the year of the awful draught… or in the year of the unbearable cold… or in the year when the rain will wash everything away, the bird will come… when people will move apart… when there will be more people but they will no longer care for one another… that’s when the bird will come… when the king will lie and his courtiers will steal… and when every land will be fraught with war… when the poet’s pen will no longer move, the bird will come…” So, he turns up to the sky again and his eyes narrow; then faced by many more questions, he halts! He looks to the ground and now dozing with closed eyes, he thinks, and tries to remember when he had heard the story about the vulture, but his memory is like a house with collapsing dry-wall, dangerous to stand on, unstable and unreliable, but some hidden affection tempted him to touch its coldness. So he is reminded of his dadi for his dadi told him this story, which her mother had told her, and her mother was the old bag who sat with her legs to her chest and in those lamp-lit hazy evenings, she would draw at her hukkah and tell stories, people used to say that his dadi’s mother was a farsighted woman, she could tell stories of days yet to come. His dadi’s father had married her and brought her from her Kewra, Hetal, Gewa and Sundari surrounded village sitting in a corner of the woods, and so people thought she had the knowledge of rural practices and tantric occult arts. This is where the story of the golden vulture originated. But he wondered how his nani knew about that story, because as his memory served, it was his dadi’s mother who first told this story. He then remembers that his nani and dadi were, in fact, sisters, and they, when one had a son and the other a daughter, like a play wedding, had verbally officiated their marriage. So, the story had emerged from the same yard, from paintings out of the same rice flour, from the light of the same earthen lamp. As he finally comes to the conclusion of his dadi and nani’s common mother, he senses approaching footsteps. He sees another old man, who is at least ten years younger than him, and who is called Little Man, drag himself languidly to him. As they face each other, he says to Little Man, “sit.” As he sits, Little Man asks, “what are you thinking about?” and breaking out of the darkness pooling in the wrinkles of his already wrinkled skin, he asks, “have you heard that story?” Little Man says, “which one?”, Old Man says, “the one about that vulture!” Little Man says, “aye!” Old Man then says, “tell me… I’ll try and compare.” Little Man says, “…that one… the vulture will come one day… it will sit on the highest place… it will be golden… it will be a vulture and the one who will see it first… will see that it is golden and that it looks like a vulture… but the one who will see it will lose his mind and he will call on people and ask them, is that a vulture or a stork… and if it is a vulture, is it golden… and when people will say… yes, it is, he will say… man, can vultures be golden?… and they will be in distress and then he will say, then it’s a stork! And they will say, yes then that is it… it’s a stork! And a question will churn at the pit of everyone’s guts but they won’t ask, can storks be golden? And everyone will be on their way back in delirium and they will look up and see a seated golden vulture, and they will tell themselves that storks look like golden vultures in the rays of a setting sun…!”

Soon the rest of the village folks get to know of it and when the dusk stands in confrontation with the night, and the evening star wakes, they do not even look at it, but point, as if greedy for a touch, at the highest branch of the tallest tree that stands erect against the canvas of the sky. Looking at the vulture, or the stork, in the haze of the dimness, they are vexed and they scare at the sound of their own breathing and earnestly wait for someone to break the silence. And then an elderly cough transmits rational thought in others, because we know that a cough is a sign of an infection and one cough sets off another deliberate or automatic cough! One cough leads to another… cough cough cough… And so, a domino of coughs ensues and when it comes to an end, the oldest man in the village or the Old Man, turns to the village chief and says, “Say something…!” So, the chief says, “What can I say? You’re the banyan tree… whatever you’ll say, we’ll hear it and then we’ll obey it…!” everyone quietly agrees, and he turns to the old man ten years younger than him, and says, “Say something, say it without hesitation…!” So, he or Little Man explains the fact of the Old Man’s dadi, nani, mother and wife and the story that had trickled down from his dadi and nani’s mother, about the bird or the vulture or the weird bird or the strange bird or the stork, and he says, “You know what happens then? Then the bird comes and the oldest man in the village sees the bird, and he falls into a delirium and dozes, and then he tries to remember who had said what on this subject, and then when he tells the next old man, or me, and that old man, I mean me, when I said, that could be a vulture or it could be a stork… and the whole thing is then explained in detail to everyone in the dimness of the night, and when no one looks at the evening star, but at the vulture or the stork or the strange bird or the weird bird on the highest branch in the darkness, they fall into delirium, then they ask the old man for the cause of it all and this assembly happens where you all sit right now. And everyone is asked, after listening to the report on dadi, nani, mother, wife, nani and dadi’s mother, what does everyone think is the real story? Everyone at the assembly sits up as if with a restored awareness, some of them furtively deciding that, since his grandmother had predicted death and destruction in the village, they will take their family and make for an escape… some of them decide that it won’t be necessary to leave the village, since the old chum’s mother had foretold it will be him who will die, so it will be him who dies, why would they leave? So… some others decide that they won’t go until they see the bird lay an egg, it was a historical affair after all. It was an occurrence almost like the Halley’s comet… not something you see every day. Someone else ponders… if this old man turned ninety nine today, how old was he before? Because they all used to say he was ninety nine. Then another round of coughing begins, the first one being the second or Little Man, who was at least ten years younger than the Old Man, he coughs khak-khak! Someone, oh-hoo…! Someone else, khakkar-khak…! After one series of coughs, the Old Man says, “So tell me… What’s going on out there in the world?” As he says it, we realise, none of us actually knows what’s really going on in the world, so when he asks, “what do poets write about now?” we realise that we don’t know anything about that either! So, when he asks, “When they were selling that golden catfish at the bazaar last week, who had actually gone to see it?” we realise that no one but one or two of us had gone to the bazaar to take a look and we’ve lost our curiosity. So, when he asks, “Are there wars?”, some of us say, “I’ve heard there are…”, so he asks, “Why? And where?” then he asks, “Are law and order different on your land?” everyone sat with stupid faces, and he says, “So you have no questions… so the vulture egg and its spawn, and the spawn’s spawn, and the spawn’s spawn’s spawn… why do you have questions about those? Your fate contains nothing but death… you have no past, no present, and you’re a curse to the future.”

The next morning everyone comes to the tree with the highest branch where the golden vulture was sitting, and they get caught in a dilemma, for they see a kite circling the tree perfectly, with its eyes set on its prey. From within the cluster of people, someone says, “Is that an eagle?”, someone else says, “Aye!”, another person says, “Is it golden?”, another says, “Aye!”, a fifth says, “Or is it a kite?”, and someone says, “Aye, aye!”, when someone else says, “No, it’s actually an eagle, or it could be a kite!” and soon they all soundlessly walk away, and never give it another thought. It is also found that, in the terror of the vulture egg bringing a plague, a lot of the villagers have run away with their families in the dead of night! So, the village chief comes to the Old Man’s yard and says, “They’ve seen an eagle flying near the same spot above the tree… some say it’s a kite, what do you say?” the man looks up with his misty eyes and says, “My eyes are all white, how could I see alright?” so, the chief says, “But yesterday you said you saw a golden vulture!”, old man says, “Yes, I did…!”, then the second old man comes and says, “Is a vulture bigger than an eagle?” and everyone falls into a dilemma, someone says, “Eagles, because they hunt!”, and someone else says, “No, a vulture… vultures are more cunning… they don’t even go into hunting, they just eat what’s already dead!” and so another one says, “Who said it’s an eagle? It’s a kite… a Brahminy kite!” which confuses everyone all over again, and they look up at the sky. Someone says, “Whatever it is, eagle or kite… where did the vulture from yesterday go?” so, someone else says, “Was it an eagle then?” another one says, “It could be an eagle, or a kite, or a stork…” and it perplexes everyone, and someone says, “Isn’t it possible that the eagle caught and ate the vulture?” then the other one says, “It’s possible… but no… because a vulture is bigger than an eagle!” and someone says, “So what does this mean?” and the Old Man coughs a bunch, and everyone coughs another round in response; then he says, spitting out a ball of yellowish phlegm, “Eagle, or kite, or vulture, they’re all bad! They need to be chased away with canes and sling-shots!” In reply, the whole crowd goes, “That’s right, that’s right!” Then the Old Man asks, “What should my age be then?” Everyone cries, “…Ninety nine!” So, he turns to Little Man, and says, “So what happens next?” and Little Man says, “Nothing, except you play the ring master, and they play the circus!”

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Glossary

  1. Dadi – paternal grandmother
  2. Nani – Maternal grandmother
  3. Nuh – Noah
  4. Kewra tree – a plant of the screw-pine family, a common mangrove plant
  5. Hetal tree – Mangrove date palm tree
  6. Gewa tree – blinding tree, another common mangrove plant
  7. Sundari tree – the looking-glass mangrove plant

Translator's Note

Romel Rahman’s bright and sharp humour made it a treat to translate this text. The longwinded sentences and the overall style give it the flavour of a story told orally in the light of a candle and eyes heavy with sleep. There was never a time in my childhood when I did not go to bed accompanied by the spirits of a freshly cooked story told to me by my father, and that exactly is the feel of this text. The underlying satire needs no pointing out. Much has already been said about the information zombies, especially now with the internet spitting out data at unfathomable speeds.  One only has to remember to fact-check the abominable bird in this circus.

Romel Rahman is a poet, writer and playwright from Khulna, Bangladesh. He has a poetry collection , Binidra Caravan and a book of short stories, Mahamari Diner Parable, to his credit.

Born in the January of 2000, in Kolkata, India, Chirayata Chakrabarty is pursuing her Master’s degree at EFL University. She also dabbles with music in her free time, a passion that was birthed by the pandemic – which she uploads occassionally on her YouTube channel. She started translating Bengali short stories, as a practice, in 2018 and has since tried to grow as a translator, as well as a song-writer and poet – a growth that she has sought since she was old enough to think.

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